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A wide-ranging sampling of Hovhaness proves uplifting

April 27, 2003|Mark Swed; Richard S. Ginell; Josef Woodard

Hovhaness: Concerto No. 7 for Orchestra, Symphony No. 15 ("Silver Pilgrimage"), Magnificat

Louisville Orchestra; University of Louisville Choir; Robert S. Whitney, cond. (First Edition Music)

*** 1/2

Hovhaness: Symphony No. 2 ("Mysterious Mountain"), Symphony No. 50 ("Mount St. Helens"), Symphony No. 66 ("Hymn to Glacier Peak"); "Storm on Mount Wildcat"

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic; Gerard Schwarz, cond. (Telarc)


Hovhaness: Cello Concerto, Symphony No. 22 ("City of Light")

Janos Starker, cello; Seattle Symphony; Dennis Russell Davies and Alan Hovhaness, cond. (Naxos)


The works on these three CDs cover 60 years, from "Storm on Mount Wildcat," written in 1931 when Hovhaness was 20, to "Hymn to Glacier Peak," written in 1991, nine years before the composer's death. It's a small selection for a prolific composer of some 500 extant works, but a characteristic one that includes his most famous symphony, "Mysterious Mountain," as well the first recording of his Cello Concerto from 1936.

The recordings themselves cover a 50-year range, from a 1953 mono reissue to a state-of-the-art, subwoofer-rattling new version of "Mount St. Helens." Yet the consistency in music and sound is remarkable.

Enthralled with mystical Asia, Bach and mountains, Alan Hovhaness is often accused of writing formulaic, long-lined and heady counterpoint that predictably resolves into spiritually grandiose cadences. But if his music is all of a mold, in the best of it the lingering melodies are gorgeous; the fugues, fabulously opulent; the finales, downright mood-elevating.

The First Edition Music disc, part of a series of reissues from the Louisville Orchestra's classic LP series of American music, is a treat, with fine performances and the sound beautifully restored. The three works on it, Concerto No. 7 (a symphony-like concerto for orchestra), "Silver Pilgrimage" and the Magnificat, genre-bending works written between 1953 and 1963, sound fresh with their musical techniques from Japan, China and India applied to Western symphonic language.

The early Cello Concerto, given an outstanding performance by Starker and Davies, has many of those Asian hallmarks and already reveals an inspired melodist and contrapuntalist. The Naxos CD is filled out by a welcome issue of the composer's own, first-rate performance of "City of Light."

Schwarz, as longtime Hohvaness champion, may not be as penetrating a conductor as Davies or Whitney, but he has an appetite for grandeur that sees him through to spectacular results on his first recording with the Liverpool Philharmonic. Recordings of "Mysterious Mountain" by Fritz Reiner and Davies are more magical, but the lavish orchestral playing captured in appropriately lavish sound, as well as the cumulative effect of a whole program of mountain music, makes this CD hard to resist.

-- Mark Swed

Gryphon produces mellow Beethoven

Beethoven: Piano Trios

Nos. 1 and 3

Gryphon Trio (Analekta)

** 1/2

On this CD of early Beethoven piano trios, the Gryphon Trio of Toronto produces some of the most polished, homogeneous collective sounds to be heard anywhere, with each player contributing a mellow, rounded, legato point of view.

This doesn't do much for the conventionally classical, if virile Trio No. 1; the performance is all right, but the Gryphonites don't get as much out of the music as the more incisive, rhythmically alive Stern/Istomin/Rose Trio (Sony) or the passionate Fuchs/Istomin/Casals Trio from the 1953 Prades Festival (Sony).

Bolder Beethoven does bring out a bolder performance from the threesome in the more vehement, more forward-looking Trio No. 3 -- although you still wish they would let go some more.

-- Richard S. Ginell

A much-needed Rorem addition

Ned Rorem: "The End of Summer," "Book of Hours," "Bright Music"

Fibonacci Sequence (Naxos)

*** 1/2

Though deemed one of America's more treasured composers, Ned Rorem (b. 1923) is still in need of greater recorded documentation. This fine release, performed with care and fire by members of Britain's Fibonacci Sequence, helps to serve that end.

This set of chamber works illustrates Rorem's implicit belief that accessibility and appropriation don't have to be dirty words. Tonality and gentle dissonance dance and dodge, to engaging effect. Liturgical music is the root template, cleverly reworked, for "Book of Hours," for flute and quasi-celestial harp, and, in "End of Summer," varying shades of Americana interlace with echoes of Satie and Euro-salon sounds.

Shards of Chopin surface in his delicious and only slightly askew quintet piece, "Bright Music," its title indicating both the temperament of the writing and the mentality of its creator.

-- Josef Woodard

Timpani works from the archives

"18th Century Concertos for Timpani and Orchestra"

Jonathan Haas, timpani; Gordon Hunt, oboe; Bournemouth Sinfonietta, Harold Farberman, conductor (Sunset)


Are timpani concertos a strictly contemporary phenomenon? Not at all, says Jonathan Haas as he reaches back more than 200 years for a trio of back-shelf oddities for this reissue recording (made in 1987 and first released on the CRD label). Buried treasure it is not. Johann Fischer's Symphony for Eight Timpani and Orchestra and Georg Druschetzky's Partita are static, formula-bound, military-flavored, artifacts, restricted further by the timpani's limitations as a melody instrument.

Druschetzky's Concerto for Oboe, Eight Timpani and Orchestra is a little more interesting because the oboe gives the timpani some scaffolding as they improvise their cadenzas together. Hearing a timpanist knocking out a solo cadenza in the classical manner palls quickly after the initial anarchic rush wears off -- and the mediocre sound doesn't permit individual pitches to emerge clearly.

-- Richard S. Ginell

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